Part of the appeal of artist Daniel Gardner’s portrait is that it shows Edward Riou, so very young and serious-looking and perhaps a little uncertain, on the brink of the first great adventure of his life. When the 16-year-old midshipman sat for this portrait in 1776, he was about to sail on James Cook’s third and final Pacific voyage of discovery. And in 1779, Riou would become an unwilling witness to Cook’s death in Hawaii.
Cook’s ships, the Resolution and Discovery, had spent the winters in the Hawaiian Islands between summer sweeps north into Arctic waters, searching for a north-west passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. If found to exist, the passage would provide faster trade links between Europe and the Pacific.
Leaving Hawaii for what should have been the last time in 1779, Cook was forced to return to make unexpected repairs to his ships. No longer welcome, a series of misunderstandings and recriminations between Cook and the Hawaiians rapidly escalated, culminating in Cook’s violent death.
10 years later, Riou had command of his own ship, the Guardian. On route to the starving colony in New South Wales, in December 1789, and specially stocked with everything Governor Phillip had written was urgently needed, the ship stuck an iceberg in the open ocean and began to sink. Riou survived the wrecking by pumping the badly holed ship for six perilous weeks until finally being tugged to safety at Cape Town by a passing vessel.
The loss of the Guardian and all the livestock and supplies it carried was one of the most traumatic events that befell the early colony. Fitted out at vast expense, the very fact of the Guardian gives credence to the idea that the settlement at Sydney Cove was not just a convict dumping ground but was also about strategic possibilities.
In 1801, Riou fought alongside Admiral Horatio Nelson in the Battle of Copenhagen, the battle in which Nelson famously ignored the ceasefire order from his commanding officer’s ship by raising the telescope to his blind eye, declaring he could not see the order. Riou, on his own ship, did follow orders, was stuck down by an enemy cannonball and died in battle.
Described by Nelson as “the gallant and good Riou” and memorialised in a monument to his bravery in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, he is now almost forgotten. Gardner’s portrait of the fresh-faced youth was acquired in its original oval carved and gilded timber frame.